It might be hot outside, but that’s nothing to the heat on school parent WhatsApp groups in the final weeks of term. It’s a firestorm of reminders, money collections and panicked mums and dads (but let’s face it, mainly mums).
We’ve ticked off the summer fair, we’ve done sports day and yet we still have countless more school engagements in the next few days. All because this week marks the start of the six-week summer break (for most of us anyway, some schools are already into the heady first days of holiday).
This year, for the first time, I am sharing that same end of term crescendo in my work life. I have decided to take six weeks off to spend the summer with my children. However I’m no worthy earth mother who wants to spend a month and a half doing the hard slog/beautiful craft of looking after three kids, aged nine, seven and four. It’s a decision driven by practical reasons.
A couple of months ago, when I started to investigate the various local summer camps (my husband and I both work full time), I realised things weren’t going to add up. Why? A combination of the cost (over £120 per day for all my kids), a recognition that my offspring would require two different camps because they are different ages, and the fact a lot of them finish at 4pm (my working day, unfortunately, doesn’t) meant I was soon in a spin.
And then I remembered parental leave. I’d looked into taking unpaid time off last year when one of the children was having a tough time at school. I’d not done it then, but I remember thinking it was mad that I hadn’t taken up any of my allowance.
Unpaid parental leave is a Government policy which allows employees to take 18 weeks of unpaid leave for each child up to their 18th birthday, with a maximum of four weeks at a time – as I have three kids, I can take more. It’s not available to self-employed or contractors but if you do have an employer they are not allowed to refuse this right. Yet I don’t know one parent who has ever used it and when I’ve told people that I plan to do so, the response has been very mixed.
Firstly there’s some anger. Why should women – and it so often is women – need to choose between childcare and maintaining a career? I’m fortunate to have the flexibility to be able to do a job I love and for which I’m well paid. But so many women are not in this position. They’ve found themselves trying to decide whether being a ‘negative earner’ in the early years of having kids was worth it and taken the decision to downshift or leave their careers because of the cost of childcare.
Then there’s some envy. I feel a bit like I’m cheating. People look at me like I’ve parked in a mother and baby spot at the supermarket when my kids are clearly big enough not to need it. I find myself defending my time off, feeling like I’ve violated the working parent code of conduct.
The truth is taking parental leave has a very clear ROI for my family. I’m doing it because it makes cold financial sense – if I worked through the summer, then by the time I’ve paid for camps, pick-ups and afternoon sitters my (way above average) income is negligible.
The benefit is that my working parent guilt (which traditionally spikes on 1 September) will be lessened. Not because my kids will be particularly better off for having my undivided attention 24/7 for six weeks, but because I won’t get to the end of August feeling like I’m not achieving hugely at work or at home.
August is traditionally not very productive at work. It’s as if our school days never quite leave us, and it’s ingrained in us that we deserve to take our foot off the gas. Let’s be honest, even the most efficient of us are not usually on top speed, with research suggesting productivity is down by at least 20 per cent.
As I type this in my air-conditioned office with a fresh cup of coffee, I know the holidays ahead will make me appreciate how much I love being a working parent. But I know too how lucky I am to be able to make this decision, that being a full-time mother for a few weeks will be good for me, the impact on my career will be minimal and the temporary lessening of parental guilt will be a bonus. Let’s hope in the future that this will be an option all parents feel able to consider.